SEFI is the »Société Européenne pour la Formation des Ingénieurs«, an organization that cares about how engineers study, how professors teach and how the curriculum fosters the ability of future generations to innovate. Their annual conference this year took place in Leuven, Belgium. Its theme was: “SEFI 2013 ‒ Engineering Education Fast Forward 1973>2013>>” due to the fact that this was also the 40th anniversary.
On a very engaging three days, I could see some recurring patterns across borders and subjects, mainly in the plenary sessions:
1. Project Based Learning
Whether really Confucius said this or another bright Chinese philosopher; the proverb holds true:
“Tell me, I forget.
Show me, I remember.
Involve me, I understand.”
Exactly this is currently coming forward in higher education, where students now not only do hand calculation homework assignments like in secondary school, but by solving problems on their own or in groups, given in form of projects. By this, the learning experience becomes more holistic, different competences are trained instead of just accumulating factual knowledge.
At the same time different speakers noted that project based learning fosters better motivation of students.
In order to give this topic some real live experience, we (=MathWorks) were asked to hold our hands-on workshops ‒ in academia one also calls it tutorials ‒ for project based learning. So we were on site with our Workshop Simulink for Lego Mindstorms that previously was mentioned in my post on IEEE EDUCON 2013 and ‒ brand new ‒ twice with the Workshop Simulink for Raspberry Pi. Professors and teachers and in the second instance also students had a lot of fun with different applications of a webcam attached to the Raspberry Pi and creating and simulating algorithms for it.
If you want to try out the integration of Simulink and Raspberry Pi, you will find all necessary information on the MakerZone page. Also on that page are the bits and pieces you need if you want to go with Simulink to Arduino or Lego Mindstorms.
2. Sustainable Learning
Okay, this headline is a pun. On the first hand it is learning about sustainability. How can we bring the ethical dimension of their actions to engineers? This topic area during the conference covered not just how engineers can make up their minds about what they develop, but also the impacts and influences of technology on society and vice versa, and how to integrate that into didactic. One quote from Carl Mitcham from the Colorado University sticked in my memory:
“We construct environments. And the environment constructs us.”
In this context of course resource efficiency is of interest, too. How to foster creativity that leads to complete new ways to less energy and material consumption? And once that path is found, young engineers need a lot of competence in system wide optimization.
The other meaning of “sustainable learning” is that the learning shall be sustainable, so it should stick. Knowing alone is not enough, the ability to do is needed, too. Keywords again are motivation, but also the term employability, meaning the practical usefulness of the young engineers, and creativity.
By better available technology like the low cost hardware platforms Raspberry Pi and Arduino mentioned above, and others, students can easier work on own projects and take theory into practice. In this context our two papers where placed. One was about simulation in technics and physics education in french secondary education (Lycée). The other was about computational thinking integrated curricula, where programming and modelling skills are built and used systematically through the studies.
3. Distant Learning
MOOC. Massive Open Online Courses. Omnipresent at the conference. Peter B. Sloep from the Open Universiteit in the Netherlands, who primarily does research in online learning, differentiates between xMOOC and cMOOC. The currently popular MOOCs on platforms like edX of MIT, Harvard and others, or Coursera and similar offer the possibility to learn asynchronously, so that the student does not have to be physically present in a certain lecture hall when this is given. The teacher, by the way, not either. Sloep warns to take xMOOC as the holy grail of higher education. Many xMOOCs just use text and videos, but fall short on practicing and experiencing. Better suited, he says, is the cMOOC concept, where “c” stands for collaborative, communicative or creative. Here it is essential to become active in live groups and learn together. Additionally it may be considered that many MOOC platforms are hosted by companies, making higher education a commercial good and less democratic, according to Sloep. Sloep’s slide deck is available online:
Also in MOOCs MATLAB is used, e.g. in the course Discrete Time Signals and Systems on edX.
My personal opinion: MOOCs will not sweep away universities. For some teachers, of course, it might get uncomfortable: why attend a third class lecture in my local university when I can hear the same contents from the world’s best teacher online? But the more the focus lies on learning the doing and experience instead of factual knowledge, the more I need local universities as institution that I can visit in its facilities. And the more professors enter bidirectional interaction with their students, the better for students and the lesser MOOCs can replace them completely. I am convinced that MOOCs can replace many standard teaching tasks, where content has to be explained thoroughly. But purely from videos and books and experimenting at their home desk, students won’t learn competencies that are equally important: project experience, team experience, social competence and much more.
As small highlight at the end I would like to mention the music at the conference dinner. The group Violet & Violetje does a crossover of groove with classical instruments. A chamber orchestra with move and fun.
This is an English version of the post “Ingenieursstudium ‒ projektbasiert, nachhaltig, lernzentriert ‒ SEFI 2013”
Disclaimed: This conference attendance took place as part of my work at MathWorks, the maker of MATLAB & Simulink. I earn my living from the success of this software, and my view on the conference thus is based in my more technological than pedagogical background.